The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Moms for Liberty has turned ‘parental rights’ into a rallying cry for conservative parents

Tina Descovich, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, poses for a portrait outside Descovich’s home in Indialantic, Fla. (Zack Wittman/for The Washington Post)
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MELBOURNE, Fla. — The three-dozen women who showed up at the Brevard County school board meeting last week wore identical "Moms for Liberty" T-shirts, declaring they don't "CO-PARENT with the GOVERNMENT."

They snickered and jeered their way through a board member’s defense of the district’s classroom mask mandate, eventually getting kicked out of the room.

Afterward, a gaggle huddled under an oak tree nearby, listening to the proceedings via cellphone. When the board voted to keep the mask ordinance in place, Jody Hand, a 52-year-old mother of three, jumped to her feet. “I am going to be spending every minute making sure parents know they don’t have control over their children anymore,” she shouted.

Hand’s anger offers a window into Moms for Liberty, a controversial organization looking to play a major role in next year’s elections. Launched initially in Brevard County to support “parental rights” in public schools, Moms for Liberty chapters have spread nationwide. Its leaders hope to convert brawlish pandemic-era cultural divisions into lasting political power.

The organization is channeling a powerful frustration among conservative mothers, who feel increasingly sidelined by school administrators and teachers. And their targets are sprawling — not only mask mandates but also curriculums that touch on LGTBQ rights, race and discrimination, and even the way schools define a scientific fact.

A Moms for Liberty chapter in Tennessee questioned whether a textbook that included a photograph of two sea horses mating was too risque for elementary schools. Members in Suffolk County, N.Y., have begun describing school mask policies as “segregation,” urging their children to rip off their masks in classrooms in protest.

And in Indian River County, Fla., a chapter recently objected to fourth-graders being taught how to spell “spinal tap,” “isolation” and “quarantine” because they were too “scary of words” to teach at that grade level, said Jennifer Pippin, head of the Indian River chapter.

In 10 months, Moms for Liberty has grown to 135 chapters in 35 states, with 56,000 members and supporters, according to the organization’s founders. The group hopes to one day have chapters in all 3,143 counties or equivalents in the United States.

“Now is the time to capture these parents for the long-term,” said Tina Descovich, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty. “If you miss this opportunity, when they are really engaged [during the pandemic], it’s going to be hard to engage them in the future.”

But the group’s critics warn that Moms for Liberty has sowed divisions among parents and made it harder for school officials to educate students while keeping them safe.

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Gary Shiffrin, head of the Brevard Association of School Administrators, who has been involved in public education since 1971, blames Moms for Liberty for the most disruptive educational environment he has seen, besides the lingering opposition to desegregation early in his career.

“They have decided they are going to be the spokespeople for conservatism, and this won’t end when covid ends,” said Shiffrin, a former teacher and high school principal.

'This group brings out the worst in people'

Descovich, 47, conceived of Moms for Liberty last fall, after being unseated from the Brevard County school board by former school employee Jennifer Jenkins, who campaigned against Descovich’s opposition to teacher raises and mask mandates.

Jenkins won the election by 10 percentage points in this heavily Republican county of about 600,000.

After she lost, Descovich connected with Tiffany Justice, who had recently stepped away from her own school board.

Both women felt that parents didn’t have enough input into school policies. So they teamed with Marie Rogerson, a Republican activist who had been Descovich’s campaign manager, to form Moms for Liberty.

“When the whole world went virtual, it opened a window for parents into what was being taught, the curriculum and teacher-parent relationships,” said Justice, 42. “So instead of parents saying, ‘I am so angry about this,’ we are creating relationships so they can go to the superintendent and school board members and say . . . ‘How can we fix it?’ ”

The first two Moms for Liberty chapters in Brevard and Indian River counties launched in January, merging with two organizations that were campaigning against local coronavirus restrictions.

They quickly became known for their outspoken tactics, with the Brevard group often directing their ire at Jenkins.

Within days of its formation, Jenkins said some members of Moms for Liberty began targeting her. Jenkins said members picketed in front of her house, followed her to her car shouting epithets after school board meetings and sent threatening mail to her home and office.

She said someone has even filed a report with the county department of Child and Family Services falsely accusing her of abusing her daughter and using drugs.

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“This has been the longest nine months of my life,” Jenkins said. “They started showing up at the school board meetings like crazy insurrectionists, and this was before it was happening so much nationally.”

The founders of Moms for Liberty said they didn’t organize and don’t condone the harassment of Jenkins. The group urges members to be “joyful warriors,” the founders said.

“We are not blind to the fact that there are crazy people out there, and they do stupid things,” said Rogerson, 38. “We encourage our members to be powerful and stand firm for your rights, but we are not there to be an angry group with pitchforks, torches, trying to burn things down.”

But Anthony Colucci, president of the Brevard Federation of Teachers, said Moms for Liberty has helped disintegrate the comity of local government, including turning school board meetings into “The Jerry Springer Show.” It has made it nearly impossible, he said, to discuss how to best serve students.

“I can be sitting in a meeting minding my own business, and they turn around and scream at me that I am a commie and teachers want to see all kids fail,” Colucci said. “This group brings out the worst in people.”

Tamsin Wright, a mother of two, said she’s been showing up to board meetings to support the mask mandate. But she often feels bullied, even though she thinks Moms for Liberty represents a minority of Brevard parents.

“Hate and conspiracy is so exciting. It gets people to come out in droves, so it works,” Wright said.

'Now we are awake'

Some political analysts have compared Moms for Liberty with earlier brands of vocal conservative activists, including the Moral Majority of the 1980s and the tea party in 2010s. And Florida Republican leaders say they are already benefiting from the group’s work.

Christian Ziegler, vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party and a Sarasota County commissioner, credits Moms for Liberty and the broader issue of “parental rights” for bringing new voters to the GOP.

Since December, Florida Republicans have narrowed Democrats’ voter-registration advantage from about 100,000 to 23,000, and the GOP appears poised to pass Democrats in registration for the first time.

Ziegler also expects the group’s members will become foot soldiers for Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) reelection campaign next year. DeSantis has aligned himself with the “parent’s rights” agenda, including in his attempts to restrict school districts from instituting mandatory masks policies.

“I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic,” said Ziegler, whose wife is loosely aligned with Moms for Liberty. “But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.”

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released in early September found that two-thirds of Americans support mask mandates in schools.

But Descovich and Justice believe their approach appeals to parents wanting to decide for themselves how best to raise their children. They plan to use the phrase “parental choice” to galvanize conservative parents to vote in both school board races and broader statewide elections, including DeSantis’s reelection bid.

In Nassau County, N.Y., Moms for Liberty member Barbara Abboud said she thinks the group could affect local races, even in some Democratic-leaning communities.

Abboud said she got involved with the organization after a school social worker put up a blog post that seemed to embrace critical race theory, an academic framework for examining systemic racism.

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“I was a mom who felt like we were not being heard at school board meetings, and I emailed their website and said, ‘Hey, what can I do to help?’ ” said Abboud, 45.

Her New York-based chapter started with six members. It’s since grown to 3,400, the largest Moms for Liberty chapter in the country, Descovich said.

“I really believe we represent a hidden majority,” Abboud said. “I was a [Parent Teacher Association] mom . . . but a year ago I couldn’t even tell you who was my school board member.”

“Now,” she added, “we are awake.”

But Democrats have questioned how Moms for Liberty is being funded, noting that its rapid expansion comes as DeSantis gears up for his reelection campaign ahead of a possible presidential bid.

Pamela Castellana, chairwoman of the Brevard County Democratic Party, said she is skeptical that Moms for Liberty is truly a grass-roots group. She noted that the group’s leaders are closely allied with several of DeSantis’s longtime political allies.

“I believe it is setting the groundwork for DeSantis to not only win the [GOP presidential] primary vote, but I believe this is how Ron DeSantis thinks he wins the presidency,” she said.

This month, The Washington Post reported that GOP megadonors have been quietly funding local groups that oppose school mask mandates.

But the founders of Moms for Liberty laughed when a reporter asked if they are receiving financial support from GOP donors.

Although Moms for Liberty recently leased its three-room office, Descovich said she is still waiting for someone to donate a microwave or minifridge. “If someone wants to give us a million dollars, we would take it, but it’s just not happening,” Descovich later said, adding that the group is being funded by individual $50 memberships from members and proceeds from the sale of their Moms for Liberty T-shirts.

'A parent in a Moms for Liberty shirt at every school board'

The group’s agenda was on display at the October meeting of the Brevard County Moms for Liberty.

About 100 women sipped red wine and ate Caesar salads at a restaurant overlooking the Indian River. Some pulled up to the restaurant with “No covid mandates” chalked on windshields of their cars.

After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the group held what they refer to as the “Madison Minute,” where they read part of the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights. This month, the First Amendment was recited.

The meeting then pivoted to a close scrutiny of the curriculum and textbooks used to educate students. One member, who declined to be identified, announced that the chapter had recently completed its review of the district’s language arts curriculum.

The audience groaned when they heard the school system teaches students “starting in kindergarten” how to be cognizant of bias. They laughed when they heard one textbook lists “.gov” Web addresses as an example of a website that can be trusted for accurate information.

And some members booed when they heard that elementary school students are being taught about climate change and “environmental racism,” with references to President Barack Obama, John F. Kerry and Oprah Winfrey.

The presenter also questioned how students are being taught about discrimination, saying the curriculum ignores conservative Black leaders.

“My issue is, where is the other side?” the presenter said. “Where is [former Housing and Urban Development secretary] Dr. Ben Carson?”

Matt Susin, a Brevard County school board member, spoke next, vowing to help the group elect more conservatives to the board during the 2022 election.

It’s the sort of commitment that founders of Moms for Liberty hope to soon be receiving from school board members and local elected officials nationwide.

“The overarching goal is to have a parent in a Moms for Liberty shirt at every school board or county commission meeting from now until the end of time,” Descovich said.